Montreal Gazette: Haiti: Failing grade for trailers
Haiti: Failing grade for trailers
High levels of the carcinogen formaldehyde were found in one of the 20 trailers built by Clayton Homes and installed in Léogâne, Haiti, for use as classrooms and hurricane shelters.
Photograph by: Isabeau Doucet, The Gazette
LÉOGÂNE, Haiti – Twenty trailers designed to serve as hurricane shelters as well as classrooms in Haiti appear to be unfit for use as either.
The trailers, built by Clayton Homes in the United States and funded by the Clinton Foundation, are neither “hurricane-proof” nor decent places for children to learn because of incredible heat, unsatisfactory sanitation facilities, lack of ventilation, leaks, mould and, in one case, high levels of formaldehyde, according to an investigative report first published in the New York City-based Nation magazine on July 11, supported by the Nation Institute Investigative Fund, the Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting and The Gazette. The project also failed to live up to its local job-creation objectives and did not properly consult the community, say local officials.
The Clinton Foundation responded to the report immediately: Chief operating officer Laura Graham told the Associated Press on July 12 that the foundation is looking into possible health and safety concerns raised by the investigation.
Since then, The Gazette has made repeated requests to interview several members of the Clinton Foundation about what concrete steps are being taken to fix the pre-fab trailers; they did not respond.
The classroom/shelters were installed between October 2010 and January 2011 at four locations where schools had been destroyed in the January 2010 earthquake.
Philippe Joseph, the official in charge of civil protection in Léogâne, said Wednesday: “To this day, I am not aware that any experts have visited Léogâne to evaluate the Clinton Foundation’s work.
“They have done nothing until now, though we’re in the middle of the cyclone season. … Can we really place people in these (trailers) for three or four days without access to toilets at a time when cholera is on the rise? This situation is very serious.”
At its very first meeting, on June 17, 2010, the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission approved an ambitious project for emergency hurricane shelters. Proposed and financed by IHRC co-chair Bill Clinton’s own foundation, the project was to construct “hurricane-proof” emergency shelters that could also serve as schools to provide Haitian schoolchildren “a decent place to learn.”
However, problems raised by some structural engineers interviewed cast doubt on whether the Clinton Foundation’s new emergency shelters, which were used this year as classrooms for more than 1,000 Haitian schoolchildren, are really “hurricane proof.”
Garry Conille, Clinton’s chief of staff at the UN Office of the Special Envoy for Haiti, told The Gazette that the new trailer classrooms “would never meet the standards for school building” under Haitian or international regulations. But Conille emphasized that the foundation’s decision-making on the project took place in a context of great urgency, with the advent of the 2010 hurricane season, when 1.5 million people were still living in tent camps.
The trailers are made of pressure-treated wood and were built specifically for the Clinton Foundation project in Léogâne. Most of the 4.9-by-12-metre trailers, which have no system of ventilation other than windows, are now filled with rows of dozens of school desks. Despite the pungent new-smelling chemical odour, mould from humidity and leaking accumulates in the window frames and at least one trailer has started to rot, with gaping holes in the walls.
And some of the children are getting sick.
By June, headaches had become so commonplace among the students at one of the Léogâne schools that even the Léogâne mayor had heard about the problem. Like the students and their parents, Mayor Santos Alexis chalked the problem up to the heat and lack of ventilation inside the trailers. But laboratory tests conducted as part of our investigation found worrying levels of formaldehyde, a carcinogen whose possible symptoms include headaches, in one of the trailers.
Trailer manufacturer Clayton Homes is currently being sued by several people who say they were “exposed to injurious levels of formaldehyde” while living in trailers Clayton sold to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, between 2005 and 2007.
The Clinton Foundation has refused requests for documentation of any bidding process involved in its contract with Clayton Homes, owned by Berkshire Hathaway. According to the Knoxville News Sentinel, the contract was worth $1 million – or $50,000 per classroom, which is well above the price of many units at a recent housing exposition that the Clinton Foundation supported in Haiti.
Paul Thomas, the Clayton Homes point person for the project, declined to be interviewed for this article and when asked for more information about the contract, deferred to the Clinton Foundation.
IHRC spokesperson Florence St-Leger Liautaud told The Gazette that she could not comment on any specific commission projects.
By mid-June 2011, two of the four Léogâne-area schools where the Clinton Foundation classrooms were installed had prematurely ended classes for the summer because the temperature in the classrooms often exceeds 38 degrees Celsius and one school had yet to open for lack of any latrines. Temperatures in Haiti usually rise to 35C or higher in June, but many Haitian homes – typically built of concrete, with lots of openings for ventilation – are designed to keep inhabitants cool.
Sitting in the Grade 6 classroom at one of these schools, the Institut Nationale Haitiano-Caribbean (INHAC), Judith Seide, explained she and her classmates regularly suffer from painful headaches in their new Clinton Foundation classroom. Every day, she says, her “head hurts and I feel it spinning and have to stop moving otherwise I’d fall.”
Classmate Mondialie Cineas, who just wrote her final exams and dreams of becoming a nurse, says that three times a week the teacher gives her and her classmates painkillers so that they can make it through the school day. “At noon, the class gets so hot, kids get headaches,” the 12-year old says, wiping beads of sweat from her brow. She is worried because “the kids feel sick, can’t work, can’t advance to succeed.”
Innocent Sylvain, the school janitor at INHAC, who spends more time than anyone else in the new trailer classrooms, is suffering from acute eye irritation. One of is eyes is completely bloodshot and he says “they itch and burn.”
Any number of environmental factors might be contributing to these health issues, but similar symptoms were experienced by those living in the FEMA trailers that the U.S. Centre for Disease Control and Prevention found to have unsafe levels of formaldehyde.
Samples of the air in 12 of the Léogâne trailers, at three of the four schools, were analyzed by California-based laboratory Assay Technologies. The lab found levels of formaldehyde in the trailer being used as INHAC’s Grade 6 classroom to be 250 parts per billion – two and a half times the level at which the CDC warned FEMA trailer residents they could face adverse health effects, like asthma and chronic lung disease. The chemical was recently added to the U.S. Department of Health’s list of carcinogens, based on studies linking exposure to formaldehyde with increased incidences of rare types of cancers. And studies have shown that children are particularly vulnerable to its respiratory effects. (The other 11 trailers tested all had concentrations at levels considered normal for mobile homes.)
Randy Maddalena, a scientist specializing in indoor air research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said he found the test results “concerning.” The high level of formaldehyde in one of the 12 trailers tested was comparable to the formaldehyde emissions problems documented in about 9 per cent of similar models of mobile home supplied by FEMA after Hurricane Katrina, according to Maddalena.
The formaldehyde found in the Grade 6 classroom is “a very high level” of the carcinogen, he said.
When Mayor Alexis heard that the new Clinton Foundation classrooms in his community had been built by a company being sued over formaldehyde in FEMA trailers, he said he hopes “these are not the same trailers that made people sick in the U.S.” (The Clayton Homes engineer who designed the trailer classrooms, Mark Izzo, has confirmed that the 20 are a new batch of trailers built by the company in 2010.)
With perspiration dripping from his face as he sits in his new-smelling classroom, INHAC principal and Grade 6 teacher Demosthene Lubert’s disappointment is palpable.
He had envisioned that the foundation of the former U.S. president would rebuild his school as a modern institution with solar-panelled lights and Wi-Fi. At the very least, Lubert said he expected Clinton’s foundation, which is active in global health philanthropy and cholera prevention in Haiti, to help with sanitation, “especially as we’re at the mercy of cholera.”
The number of cholera cases seen per week in Haiti went from 85 at the end of April, to 820 at the beginning of June, said Médecins sans frontières country director, Sylvain Groulx. The disease, which is preventable with proper sanitary conditions, has killed 5,500 people since October. Yet none of the schools where the Clinton Foundation trailers were installed were provided with running water and latrines. And with INHAC’s more than 700 students using only four latrines, which the school rebuilt without any support from the Clinton Foundation, Lubert complains that the school’s current facilities are “insufficient” given the cholera epidemic.
Léogâne had been relying on the Clayton Homes trailers: Before this report was published in the Nation magazine, the trailers were the municipality’s emergency response “Plan A” for hurricane season, confirmed civil protection director Joseph.
Larry Tanner, a wind science specialist at Texas Tech University, was “suspicious” when he heard that trailers were to be used as hurricane shelters in Haiti, and put the odds that Clayton Homes had developed a mobile home that could be safely used as a hurricane shelter at “slim to none.”
Mobile homes are considered to be so unsafe in hurricanes that FEMA unequivocally advises anybody living in a mobile home to evacuate it in the event of a hurricane.
Clayton Homes engineer Izzo said the Léogâne trailers could withstand winds up to 140 miles per hour. The company arrived at this figure through calculations, he said, rather than testing.
But Tanner emphasized that such structures must be rigorously tested for resistance to high winds and projectiles. Clayton Homes’s failure to test the trailer design meant that it would not meet the international construction standard for hurricane shelter. “It certainly would not be accepted by FEMA, either,” he added.
Until they learned of the Nation investigation, both Léogâne’s department of civil protection and the school directors were operating on the assumption that the shelters were “hurricane-proof” – a claim they say has been made by Clinton as well as Clayton Homes. On the Clinton Foundation website, a report titled Emergency Hurricane Shelter Project says: “On August 6, construction on Léogâne’s emergency shelters commenced at the École Communautaire Ste. Thérèse de Darbonne, with President Clinton breaking ground.”
Joseph ascribes the new shelters’ “infernal” heat, humidity and other problems to lack of on-the-ground consultation.
While the Clinton Foundation and IHRC claim to have worked with local government to implement the shelter plan, Joseph disputes this, saying the foundation simply informed him that they were building four schools in his district.
“To me this is not a consultation,” the local official remarked. “To consult people you have to ask them what they need and how they think it could best be implemented.”
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